New Jersey OKs Bill Restricting Access To Car Recording Devices

The New Jersey Assembly unanimously approved a bill Thursday 73-0 that would limit access to data from recording devices in automobiles that capture information about the driver’s activity to car owners and certain qualified individuals and officials.

Rep. Paul Moriarty, D-Camden/Gloucester, and Rep. Daniel Benson, D-Mercer/Middlesex, who sponsored the bill, said that nearly all automobiles manufactured within the last few years have an “event recording device” installed, which record information about vehicle speed, seatbelt use, airbag deployment and locations traveled, and that information needs to be carefully guarded.

The lawmakers said the information that EDRs can provide is valuable for investigations and as evidence in court cases, but they cautioned that passing their legislation is necessary to make sure that the data is used properly and that the privacy rights of car owners aren’t violated.

“Crash data retrieved from a vehicle’s black box can play a critical role in determining what exactly happened at the time of an accident, but it’s always essential that sensitive information doesn’t get into the wrong hands,” Benson said in a statement Thursday. “This legislation eliminates the ambiguity about whether this information is the property of the car’s owner, its manufacturer or someone else. Even more importantly, this bill promotes drivers’ safety while guarding their privacy.”

Under bill A-3579, only qualified persons other than the owner of the motor vehicle or the owner’s representative, are allowed to retrieve, obtain or use data recorded, stored or transmitted from the device.

Those individuals include law enforcement personnel with a search warrant; a licensed motor vehicle dealer, servicing facility, or mechanic using the information to service or repair the vehicle; an emergency response provider using the data to facilitate an emergency medical response, or an attorney or court officer seeking to obtain data for a proper discovery request or order in a civil action.

“The preservation of electronic data from any of these sources is becoming vital to the defense of litigation in accidents,” Moriarty said in a statement. “These recordings may be the most reliable and objective source of information about the events that occurred just prior to a crash. This legislation is necessary to preserve the integrity of the recordings and protect what may be used as evidence in court.”

The bill also permits the data to be accessed for the purpose of improving motor vehicle safety as long as the identity of the owner or any occupant of the vehicle is not disclosed, or anytime the owner or the owner’s representative consents in writing to another party’s data retrieval.

The legislation also allows a subscription service provider to access the data if the subscription service agreement discloses that the data may be recorded, stored, and transmitted.

The bill also prohibits tampering with the data on a recording device or destruction of a device in order to prevent access to the recorded data after a fatal or injury-causing crash for a period of two years. It establishes a $5,000 civil penalty for a violation.

Lastly, the bill establishes a refutable presumption that a vehicle recycler or scrap recycling facility has no knowledge of the involvement of a vehicle in a crash event that resulted in bodily injury or death.

Thursday’s 73-0 approval gives the bill final legislative approval and it will now head to the governor’s desk.

Senate Passes 2016 Budget in a “vote-a-rama.”

Senators voted 52-46 on the fiscal year 2016 budget resolution after a nearly day-long session that began Thursday morning and stretched well into early Friday, with lawmakers considering more than 50 individual amendments and a package of noncontroversial measures, part of a process colloquially known as the “vote-a-rama,” following three previous days of debate in which senators had agreed to 11 proposed amendments.

Among the nearly 30 amendments approved by senators on Thursday and Friday were measures to roll back the estate tax and provide “middle class tax relief,” as well as a pair of amendments seeking to block a carbon tax and removing a block on highway funds for states who don’t submit implementation plans for proposed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

Democratic lawmakers saw several of their proposed amendments pass, including a proposal to expand access to paid sick days for workers, as well as a measure seeking to recognize same-sex marriage for the purposes of Social Security and veterans’ benefits, with 11 GOP senators joining the minority in that vote.

The rejected measures included two proposals to increase defense spending beyond the increases already set out in the budget, a measure to increase the federal minimum wage, and moves to cut clauses written into the resolution that would slash more than a trillion dollars in federal Medicaid and Medicare funding over the next decade.

Further, senators rejected a bid to close purported tax loopholes related to “offshoring,” presumably to leave the proposal for a more comprehensive tax reform effort.

The Senate’s final vote came after the House of Representatives on Wednesday approved its own proposed budget plan in a largely party-line vote, after a single day of debate which saw it consider only a limited series of proposed amendments, including alternative budget plans put forward by progressive and conservative caucuses.

House lawmakers took up only one amendment, proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., seeking to remove the requirement that $20 billion of $613 billion in proposed defense funding be made contingent on finding offsets elsewhere in the budget — publicly criticized by several GOP lawmakers as making that funding effectively illusory — and then adding an additional $2 billion in defense funding.

The Senate budget plan provides about $1.16 trillion in discretionary funding for FY16, with mandatory funding bringing total spending up to around $3.8 trillion.

Over the long term, it seeks to eliminate the federal deficit and reach a planned surplus in 2025, through about $5.1 trillion in spending cuts spread across a variety of both discretionary and mandatory federal programs — including the full repeal of the Affordable Care Act — with the exception of defense spending, which would be ramped up.

The House plan is similar, although more aggressive in its planned cuts and intended timeline to eliminate the federal deficit, with $5.5 trillion in planned cuts to reach a surplus beginning in 2024.

While the two chambers’ budget plans — which are subject to further reconciliation — do not actually implement any specific spending measures, they are meant to be used by appropriators as a guide when setting down FY16 appropriations bills later this year.

Bipartisan House Vote Passes Permanent Medicare ‘Doc Fix’

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill intended to put in place a permanent “doc fix” to replace Medicare’s unpopular physician reimbursement system, commonly overridden by lawmakers each year.

H.R. 2, the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act, passed in a 392-37 vote, with many Democratic lawmakers joining the bulk of House Republicans in supporting the bill after several lawmakers from each party spoke in favor of the legislation on the House floor Thursday.

Under the bill, Medicare’s current sustainable growth rate formula, or SGR, would be permanently repealed. Instead, Medicare doctor pay would rise by 0.5 percent each year between 2015 and 2019, beginning in July.

Payments will then be held at the 2019 rate through 2025, but physicians and other health professionals will be eligible for merit-based bonus payments based on factors such as meaningful usage of electronic health record systems and their use of care models that emphasize quality over volume.

From 2026 onward, medical professionals who use certain alternative payment systems will receive a 1 percent annual increase in their Medicare payment rates, with others seeing 0.5 percent annual increases.

The SGR is a measure meant to tie increases in Medicare reimbursements to inflation, designed to avoid runaway cost increases. But the formula has been routinely overridden for almost two decades, through enactment of an annual “doc fix” — usually at the last minute — with lawmakers generally arguing that keeping to the SGR rates would cause many doctors to refuse Medicare patients, threatening access to care for seniors.

Over time, the gap between the specified rate under the SGR and the actual Medicare payment rate has grown amid this long pattern of temporary fixes. If a doc fix is not signed into law this year, doctors would see their Medicare reimbursement rate drop by 21 percent.

In addition to the doc fix section of the bill, the legislation also includes a collection of measures to both relax and strengthen various aspects of anti-fraud oversight under Medicare and would extend both the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, and certain funding for community health centers for an additional two years.

To help offset the expected cost of the bill, pegged at more than $210 billion, House Democratic lawmakers agreed to a number of other Medicare changes, including tweaks to make supplemental Medigap plans less generous starting in 2020, and requiring certain high-income seniors to pay higher premiums for doctor and outpatient care and prescription drug coverage.

Their Democratic counterparts in the Senate have offered the bill qualified support, indicating they may push for a longer extension on CHIP funding and look to tweak some aspects of the legislation, such as the inclusion of the so-called Hyde Amendment  — used to bar federal funds from being used to fund abortion — for community health center funding, the same clause that has seen an otherwise uncontroversial anti-sex trafficking bill stall.

The White House has indicated it will support the bill in its current form, backing up President Barack Obama’s measured support with a policy statement Wednesday saying it believed the reforms in the bill were “sensible.”

House Passes FY16 Budget / Senate Continues Debate

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday adopted amendments on Medicare funding and a  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule during debate over its proposed 2016 budget resolution, and the House of Representatives passed its own budget plan with a single amendment, adding $2 billion in defense spending.

House lawmakers rejected five proposed amendments to the chamber’s fiscal year 2016 budget, including alternative budgets put forward by progressive and conservative caucuses, before ultimately agreeing to an amendment removing a requirement for offsets to $20 billion in defense spending and adding an additional $2 billion for defense. The amended budget plan passed in a 228-199 vote.

In debate on their budget plan, senators agreed to five proposed amendments, after taking up six amendments on Tuesday. They are expected to finish debate on Thursday, in a process that could run well into the evening.

Among the amendments taken up by senators on Wednesday were measures to pare overlaps in various student loan programs, to provide additional funding for Israel and to protect certain Medicare funding.

Senators also agreed on two measures seeking to clarify the scope of the EPA’s water protection efforts under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, as well as to rein in its contentious definition of “waters of the U.S.,” previously criticized by a number of lawmakers as an overreach of its regulatory authority.

The Senate, however, rejected a broader measure to allow refinancing of federal student loans and an amendment to make it more difficult to pass legislation to privatize Medicare, as well as an amendment establishing climate change as a reality and attributing it to human activity.

Lawmakers also declined to extend the bipartisan budget deal that had applied in fiscal years 2014 and 2015, blocking an amendment that would both override the federal sequester for an additional two years and roll back billions of dollars in defense spending added to the budget plan during committee markup.

Under the House plan, base defense spending had been set at the sequester level cap, with the plan’s authors instead moving to add up to $94 billion in defense funding using Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO, funds, which fall outside the budget cap.

Several GOP lawmakers, however, balked at plans to make around $20 billion of OCO funding contingent on finding budget offsets elsewhere, arguing that the funding was effectively illusory.

The dispute held up the plan’s passage out of the Budget Committee, before Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., promised to bring up an amendment to secure that funding, allowing the resolution to move forward. Overall, the House GOP budget plan provides $1.128 trillion in discretionary spending in fiscal year 2016, with close to $3.8 trillion in total spending, including mandatory programs.

The proposal also sets out a long-term plan intended to balance the federal budget by 2024, with about $5.5 trillion in spending cuts over that period across a wide variety of both discretionary and mandatory spending programs, including a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” although defense spending would receive a significant boost.

The Senate plan also proposes to balance the federal budget and bolster defense spending over the long term, but takes a slightly less aggressive approach, hitting a projected surplus by 2025.

US Senate Commences 2016 Budget Amendment Process

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate agreed to amendments protecting certain Medicaid funding and seeking to promote equal pay for women, while rejecting a bid to fund infrastructure improvements through closing purported tax loopholes, as senators kicked off their markup of the proposed 2016 federal budget.

After formally beginning debate on the proposed budget resolution on Monday, senators took their first votes on proposed amendments Tuesday, including funding proposals on equal pay, Medicaid, Social Security, infrastructure and veterans’ health care.

Among the 10 amendments considered by the Senate on Tuesday, senators agreed to six, easily passing measures to establish a series of “budget neutral” reserve funds, including two funds intended to increase mental and physical health care options for military veterans, a fund to help strengthen Social Security, and another pair of funds meant to protect benefits for Medicaid-eligible children with “medically complex” issues and certain other Medicaid beneficiaries seen as particularly vulnerable, including seniors and the disabled.

The Senate, however, rejected an accompanying measure proposed by Sen. Barb Mikulski, D-Md., that would block employers from using “any reason” to pay women less for the same work, criticized by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., as “corrosive” and too prescriptive to be included in a budget bill.

Lawmakers also blocked a more extensive Democratic amendment on Social Security funding, as well as a proposal by Budget Committee ranking member Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to provide billions of dollars in extra funding for infrastructure, intended to be offset by closing purported loopholes in the corporate tax code.

An amendment meant to represent President Barack Obama’s proposed budget, released earlier in the year, was further rejected by lawmakers from both parties after being brought up for a symbolic vote by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, with Sanders complaining that the measure did not accurately reflect the president’s budget.

The markup is expected to continue over the next several days in both the Senate and the House of Representatives — which kicked off debate on its own proposed budget Tuesday, but has yet to consider any amendments on the House floor — expected to cap the process off with potentially dozens of votes on proposed amendments in each chamber on Thursday.

The proposals vary on several details, but — in keeping with proposed budget plans put forward by the House GOP majority in recent years — each calls for trillions of dollars in spending cuts to both discretionary and mandatory spending over the “out-years” beyond fiscal 2016, seeking to balance the federal budget by either 2024 or 2025 without raising taxes. The notable exception to each chamber’s proposed budget reductions is defense spending, which could actually see a significant boost under either plan.

GOP lawmaker target Obama’s climate plan.

House Republicans on Monday released a bill to delay the Obama administration’s plan to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants.

Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky unveiled a draft bill that would allow governors to veto compliance with the federal rule if the governor determines it would cause significant rate hikes for electricity or harm reliability in the state.

The bill also would delay the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate rule until all court challenges are completed.

Whitfield, chairman of the energy and power subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce panel, said the EPA’s proposed rule to limit carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants is riddled with problems and faces an uphill battle in the courts.

Whitfield and other Republicans cited testimony from an unlikely ally, Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, an Obama mentor who has said the proposed EPA rule is unconstitutional.

Tribe, a one time champion of the environmental movement, said the EPA is attempting what he called “an unconstitutional trifecta: usurping the prerogatives of the states, Congress and the federal courts — all at once.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also cited Tribe’s comments in a letter urging the nation’s 50 governors to defy Obama’s power plant rules by refusing to submit compliance plans to Washington.

Democrats and environmentalists have criticized Tribe, noting that his testimony follows comments he submitted in December on behalf of Peabody Energy Corp., the world’s largest private-sector coal company.

The measure unveiled Monday does not block the EPA rule outright, as previous GOP bills have intended, but Whitfield said he is confident the measure would protect states and consumers.

A spokesman for Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who has worked with Whitfield on previous EPA legislation, said the senator is reviewing Whitfield’s proposal.

Whitfield said he has scheduled an April 14 hearing on his bill.

Congress to seek changes in Fracking Rules

But the Obama administration has maintained that the current rules are outdated after technological innovations that have greatly improved the drilling method’s success and expanded its use. It also maintained that 19 of the 32 states in which the rule would apply lack fracking-specific rules.

“It has been very important to the United States in terms of energy independence and also bringing down the price of oil because of increased supplies. So it has been very important, but it also is out ahead of where regulations have been, and that is why we have chosen to put these regulations in place … where fracking has gone — the pressures, the horizontal drilling — all of that is new and our regulations have not kept pace,” Jewell said.

Litigation is typical for new energy and environmental regulations. But while some rules have questionable legal authority — the section of the Clean Air Act on which the proposed Environmental Protection Agency emissions rule for existing power plants relies, for example, has little case law under it — the fracking regulation is less ambiguous.

“I would agree on that,” Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs with the Western Energy Alliance, told the Washington Examiner. “It is hard to challenge regulation.”

Still, Sgamma said the Interior Department’s case is far from ironclad. Aside from the potential flouting of the Administrative Procedure Act, she noted Indian tribes have found fault with how the Obama administration consulted them during the rule-making process.

The rule would apply to energy development on tribal land as well as federal land. Oil and gas resources are a significant revenue source for tribes, accounting for $1.1 billion in federal royalty disbursements in fiscal 2014, according to Interior. That’s more than double the $534 million tribes received in fiscal 2008, before the U.S. drilling boom took off.

Janice Schneider, Interior’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said tribes were very much involved in the process.

“We held two sets of regional meetings [in 2012], which yielded substantive discussions on topics that included the applicability of tribal law, validating water sources, inspection and enforcement, well bore integrity and water management,” Schneider said. “Additional individual consultations and larger meetings with tribal representatives have taken place since that time.”

But Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee said some tribes have told them that wasn’t the case. Committee staff said they’re reaching out to tribes to see if they have concerns about the final rule.

“Tribes with mineral resources were very unhappy when it was first proposed — especially because they were not consulted and since then they have weighed in. The tribes were also unhappy with the substance of the rule. Probably more than anything, what upsets them is that lands held in trust for Indians were being treated under the rule as if they were publicly owned lands,” committee spokeswoman Julia Bell told the Examiner.

Democrats and Republicans may find a common cause with electric cars.

The New Jersey Senate on Monday passed proposed legislation that would allow Tesla Motors Inc. to sell its electric vehicles directly to consumers in the Garden State and undo a controversial regulation that requires manufacturers to sell cars through dealerships.

The bill passed the Senate on a 30-2 vote and will now be sent to the desk of Gov. Chris Christie for his signature. The proposal received overwhelming support in the New Jersey Assembly, passing on a 77-0 vote, with only one abstention.

If approved, the legislation would override a New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission decision from last year that requires new vehicle sales go through brick-and-mortar franchise agreements.

The legislation allows manufacturers to sell the vehicles at four locations in the state so long as it owns or operates at least one retail facility in New Jersey for servicing vehicles.

On June 5, the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee advanced the litigation in a 5-0 vote, with Eustace telling the panel he doesn’t expect the changes to disrupt the existing auto market in the near future.

The legislation is part of a multipronged effort to overturn the MVC’s decision, which made New Jersey the third state to ban direct-to-consumer auto sales after Arizona and Texas. The New Jersey ban got a combative response from Tesla, which accused the MVC of buckling under pressure from auto dealership advocates in an official blog post.

Tesla is also attacking the MVC’s decision with a formal challenge in the state Appellate Division and the filing of a Superior Court complaint against the MVC in April alleging it is violating New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act by withholding documents related to its decision. That litigation is pending.

Direct-sales bans in various states have been backed by auto dealer associations that see the new model as a threat to their business model. Tesla only accounts for a fraction of U.S. auto sales: a little more than 22,000 out of 15 million cars sold in the U.S., according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Auto dealers could be left out of the loop if General Motors Co. or another large U.S. automaker decides in the future to make a shift in its business model and also choose to go with direct sales.

Tesla is one of the few areas where Democrats and Republicans could find a common cause. Congressional Republicans, including 2016 presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, have criticized the Tesla sales ban on free-market grounds. Democrats, meanwhile, have backed Tesla’s innovation and the environmental benefits of electric cars. Tesla has sought to leverage the public backlash against the sales bans to pressure lawmakers for a legislative fix.

Senate Bi-partisanship keeps Hope Alive on Energy-Efficiency Bill

Ohio Republican Rob Portman and New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen today reintroducing major energy legislation to cut energy use in commercial buildings, manufacturing plants, and homes, a measure the senators have floated in one form or another since 2011

The bill, despite buy-in from  business and environmental groups, has spent years ensnared in fights over more volatile topics like the Keystone XL pipeline and Obamacare. It has reached the Senate floor twice in the last two years, only to stall out.

Portman and Shaheen, who will float the bill with a bipartisan group of cosponsors, are hopeful they can convince colleagues to avoid letting it become a magnet for controversial amendments.

The Senate has gotten weeks of debates and votes on Keystone out of the way for the moment, culminating this month in a failed attempt to override President Obama’s veto of legislation to authorize the project.

Avoiding controversial amendments, however, would still not ensure the bill is opposition-free. Heritage Action, for example, has opposed previous versions that came to the floor, taking aim at funding authorizations for the bill’s programs and also arguing that the bill duplicates existing federal and state efforts.

The wide-ranging bill’s various provisions include: new and enhanced Energy Department work with manufacturers to develop and commercialize efficient technologies and industrial processes; stronger “model” building codes and assistance to help states and local governments adopt them; an initiative to train people for careers in efficient building design and operation; provisions to boost energy efficiency in federal buildings; language directing energy savings to be incorporated into federally backed mortgages to encourage greater efficiency, and more.

The two senators say the case for the bill is obvious. According to a summary from their offices, the measure would, by 2030, create more than 190,000 jobs, save consumers $16 billion a year, and cut carbon-dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to taking 22 million cars off the road.

Supporters include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Alliance to Save Energy, the Business Roundtable, the Environmental Defense Fund, and a broad suite of other groups and individual companies, including publically traded Westinghouse and General Electric.

The Evolution Of Medicare ACOs

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services on Tuesday unveiled a new model of accountable care organization that offers larger financial risks and rewards, a test of whether stronger incentives can help health care providers deliver better quality and value.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) created pathways for providers to become more accountable for their patients’ health care. One of these pathways, the Medicare Shared Savings Program, was intended to encourage the development of accountable care organizations (ACOs). In general terms, an ACO is a group of providers that work together to coordinate patient care and are rewarded if they lower their growth in health care costs while meeting quality standards.

The “Next Generation” model now joins two other types of ACOs — so-called Pioneers and those in the Medicare Shared Savings Program — and represents the boldest set of carrots and sticks that CMS has offered to move away from fee-for-service reimbursement. It’s also a contribution to new targets for tying pay to performance and nudging providers into alternative delivery models. But the approach is also a gamble, given that financial incentives in ACOs have so far had mixed results. In the Pioneer program, where participants take on more risk than those in the MSSP, only 19 of the 32 original ACOs remain. In the MSSP, participants are likely to get three extra years to share in savings without risking losses.

For the Next Generation approach, the first round of applications are due by June 1 and a second round will be due by June 1, 2016. CMS said it expects 15-20 ACOs to eventually participate and that more may be allowed “if resources are available and a compelling reason exists to do so.”

Participants will have a choice of two arrangements when it comes to the amount of financial risk they accept. There will be four different payment mechanisms, including traditional fee-for-service, supplemented fee-for-service, population-based pay and lump-sum capitation.

Beneficiaries served by doctors, hospitals and clinics in a participating ACO will retain the ability to visit other health care providers. But in order to encourage use of the ACOs, CMS said that it will make direct payments to beneficiaries who receive a minimum amount of care through an ACO — probably about $50 per year for those who get at least 50 percent of services through the Next Generation model.

Next Generation ACOs will also get a helping hand from relaxed restrictions on how care is delivered. For example, telemedicine services that provide diagnoses and prescriptions using videoconferencing will be exempted from requirements that patients be in rural areas and at an acceptable “originating site” when they receive their care.

Tuesday’s announcement included several documents with detailed information on how benchmark spending targets will be set, how risk and reimbursement will be structured and how savings will be calculated. Additional details will be supplied to applicants before signing of agreements, CMS said.

As with other ACOs, there may also be waivers from fraud and abuse laws involving kickbacks and referrals. But CMS said any such exemptions would be issued separately from Tuesday’s documents and that the waivers in Next Generation “could differ in scope or design from waivers granted for other programs or models.”